Federal Reserve to disclose more details on plans for low interest rates

The Federal Reserve, which took aggressive action in response to the U.S. financial crisis and more recently to help keep European banks in good health, has been divided for months over whether to take major new actions to bolster the nation’s slow economic recovery.

Instead, at its first meeting of the year this week, the Fed is planning to take a more incremental step: disclosing more detail about its plans to keep interest rates low for at least the next year and a half.

By releasing projections that show it plans to keep interest rates low for a protracted period, the Fed might drive interest rates down a bit more. Lower rates tend to spur more lending, which generates more economic activity.

The new disclosures will be the latest in a series of relatively limited measures the Fed has taken over the past year to support economic growth at a time when the unemployment rate has stayed high. The modest nature of the effort underscores how the Fed is having trouble forging a consensus over policies that would dramatically reduce joblessness without sparking inflation.

Many economists and several Fed leaders argue that the central bank should create money and use it to buy mortgages, driving interest rates lower than they already are. But Fed policymakers have reached no consensus on such a stimulus strategy, in part because of doubts about its effectiveness in speeding up growth. And several Fed officials have voiced outright opposition to any new stimulative measures, fearful of sparking inflation or new financial bubbles.

Chairman Ben S. Bernanke has said the central bank’s approach strikes the right balance, although he acknowledges that the Fed has not succeeded in driving unemployment down enough.

The Fed faces intense pressures. With Congress paralyzed by partisan politics, the Fed is one of the few government institutions that can foster economic growth. Critics say, however, that the Fed has repeatedly underestimated the challenges facing the economy and, as a consequence, has not responded strongly enough.

Recent economic data have revealed bright spots that suggest the recovery might be picking up steam largely on its own.

“The primary triggers of further policy easing would likely be either deterioration in the growth outlook for the United States or signals of imminent danger with Europe’s chronic sovereign debt problem,” Wells Fargo economists said in a research report.

To make the most of its low-interest-rate policies, Fed officials have said Congress and the Obama administration should do more to make it easier for Americans to take advantage of those policies — for example, by relaxing standards for refinancing home mortgages.

Bernanke has pushed for greater openness at the Fed since he took office five years ago. The chairman hopes that by routinely telling the public more information about the Fed’s expected plans, it will be easier for the central bank to influence the markets.

In the new disclosures, Fed officials will say when they think the central bank should start raising rates. They will also give their projections for what interest rates will be at the end of the next few years.

The potential impact could be limited because the Fed’s benchmark interest rate is already near zero percent, and the central bank has already made clear that it plans to keep it at that level “at least” through the middle of 2013.

In a few weeks, the Fed is expected to release a more detailed statement describing its expectations for its other policy tools, such as purchases of U.S. government and mortgage bonds.

Some analysts say that the bounty of new information, carefully negotiated among Fed officials with different priorities, could confuse as much as clarify the central bank’s intentions.

That’s because under the current arrangement, the Fed provides a simple declarative statement indicating when it expects to consider raising rates. Now, it will provide a wide range of assessments.

“The Fed has traded a policy of signaling commitment on rates through a formal vote for an arithmetic compilation of opinions about the path of policy,” wrote Vincent Reinhart, a former Fed economist and now chief economist with Morgan Stanley, in a research report.

Over the past year, the Fed has taken other incremental steps, including committing to keeping interest rates low for a fixed period of time, seeking to bring down long-term interest rates in place of short-term rates, and reinvesting investments in mortgages rather than reducing total investments.

Last year, the Fed was divided over even these modest steps. Three members of the Fed dissented from policy statements, arguing that they were too supportive of the economy. A fourth member of the Fed, complaining that the Fed wasn’t doing enough, also dissented.

Zachary A. Goldfarb is policy editor at The Washington Post.
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